Glass Lyre Press
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Erica Goss’s Lyrebird Prize-winning new collection, Night Court, begins by pulling readers into a world of eerie sounds in the dark of night. It positions us on the edge of what the book’s final poem calls the “floating world” between real and surreal. When the speaker tells us in “In the Fairytale Forest,”
There’s a crack at the edge
of the world where the dark
and comic leak through…,
she is describing the liminal spaces which so many poems in this collection inhabit: between the familiar surroundings of home and ghosts who “always seem friendly at first,” between encroaching desert and camellia garden, between sexual desire and thoughts of death, between being a daughter and being a mother.
The concluding section of the poem “Salt to Salt” contains what could be a poetic manifesto:
We are not finished –
a lone shoe
is the punchline to
some impenetrable joke
and me at the water’s edge
ready for more uncanny gifts.
These poems invite us into those liminal spaces and reward us with uncanny insights.
The guiding threads are sensory, familial, and archetypal; the geographies of relationships and imagination are juxtaposed with the physical geography of California, with its encroaching deserts and wildfires, but also its redwoods “that suck fog like whales sift krill” and “on windy nights…sing of darkness.” Both those geographies are used as a way to explore relationships.
“In the Fairytale Forest” goes on to explore a mother’s deepest fears:
…one day long ago
you wished your boy children gone
and in that flash of anger
they became birds and flew
to the forest. There they await
the magic flower shirts
their sister will one day sew
as fast as she can,
while the pyre burns.
In “Strange Land,” as the American desert drifts under the doorsill, the speaker’s mother tries to preserve the old country inside the house. “This Is a Wild Place” blends both geographies to delineate the mother-daughter relationship. In it, the narrator, sitting in her car in a parking lot in late winter, is “called away from my body” to a childhood experience. She recalls climbing a huge pine and having “a vision of flying into the thin mountain air.” She goes on to relate how
…my mother called
my name softly, standing on the red earth,
and her voice was a ladder
I climbed down.
Night Court’s first section, which ends with the title poem and builds up to it with remarkable focus and dramatic cohesion, is the most moving part of the book. It establishes a sense of dread through poems such as “Omens,” which begins with
Tap of bone on glass –
a clue, some chill intelligence.
Morning unfolds a series of warnings:
truncated telephone rings,
the cello’s long vibration.
The whole collection pivots on the title poem, which calls to account the tragedies and nightmares which are the sources of that dread and signals the beginning of what the poem calls “my examination, my handbook on how to live,” in the sections that follow.
The above-quoted lines from “Omens” are a good example of Goss’s uncanny gift for not only describing sounds, but also masterfully employing and contextualizing those descriptions. In “Act Normal,” the silence of the forest is “white noise against a black sky.” “What Insomniacs Hear” presents an eerie sonic continuum from the “thumping hurtle of an emergency vehicle” to “the clatter of souls/entering new bodies to “trees roots forcing up suburban sidewalks.” We hear
frogs and crickets
whose shrill demands for love
sift through the lead-lidded hours…
and finally the:
sigh of theater seats
as a small, disheveled audience
settles in for the late-night movie:
my dreams on the screen.
In “Answer the Phone,” it is the dead who are calling, but the living hear only “the long static hum, faint clicks and breaths…” On a lighter note, “The White Bear,” attention to sound creates a touch of wry humor:
What would love be like?
Mama and Papa: rustling, a groan.
Seven children among the dented pots.
For me, the best example of Goss’s acuity in conveying emotional resonance through sound is her description of listening to “…the deep space sounds of the hospital” at her father’s bedside in “Phase.”
Three poems struck me as representative of the collection’s thematic scope. “Often,” from the book’s opening section, establishes a tone of existential unease in its first stanza:
When I am alone
the wind comes up suddenly
as if to remind me
of all I fear…
The speaker tries to pretend it is only “the harmless burp of the dishwasher,” yet concludes by saying
…if, in spite of the noises
of innocent appliances
I still think about death
it’s never my own:
my list of losses is long
and orderly: at the end
I’m left alone and the wind
comes up suddenly.
In “Remember Three Words,” a Mini-Cog mental screening assessment stirs up far more in the speaker’s mind than it can possibly diagnose. “Love Poem with Broken Things” expresses the speaker’s deep tenderness for a husband with whom she has learned that “…when I think our life cannot accept another broken, hopeless thing,” he will have a tool to fix it—or if not,
we’ve learned to let it go with a shrug,
like when he finally admitted he couldn’t
put the phonograph back together, and solemnly
handed the screwdriver back to his father.
The later sections of the book expand to cover more realistic ground: poems dealing with illness, trauma and guilt, poems about sexual intimacy, about childbirth, and about children: unborn children, ill children, lost children. The poems of Section IV present the gritty reality of the physical world through taste and touch. “Acquired Taste” opens the section by demanding
Melt off the candy coating
and give me my medicine
It celebrates bittersweet chocolate, oranges as “little golden bombs,” pears “like sweet, lumpy trolls”; but also the tastes of dirt and grit from demolished buildings in one’s mouth. The best poems here bring a frisson of fear or delight, in the whistle of prairie wind heard in the sizzle of a steak, in windows that “vibrate like teeth under the drill.” While there are frequently disorienting and sometimes harrowing moments, there is also warmth and joy. Several poems bring memorable chills that I will leave for the reader to discover, from the bitter (“The Art of Smoking”) to the visceral (“Irresistible”) to the darkly enchanted (“The Art of Negotiation”).
Section V give us poems about wives, husbands, fathers, mothers and sons; but its final poem leaves us looking at the stark white of old photographs. On the book’s back cover, Erica Goss looks directly at the camera lens. She is set against a black background, in contrast to her subjects in that final poem, “Photographs of Elderly Poets,” who
…gaze past us, odd-eyed,
alive in the floating world
even as Death
stands behind them,
filling the empty spaces
in the photographs
with rawboned light.
This collection, fearlessly crafted and founded on a vulnerable honesty, establishes intimacy with the reader from the opening poem. I’m reminded how poetry cannot succeed without winning a reader’s trust; I trust these poems as much as any I have read in a long while.